The New England Patriots called for an audible in their quarterback room last week against the Las Vegas Raiders. While Mac Jones still served as the starter, undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham took over backup duties after signing to the active roster on Saturday.
Whether that will continue to be the plan moving forward is still undecided.
“I think that’ll be week-to-week,” offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said Tuesday. “That’ll be week-to-week, depending on what different things go on. You could see him at different spots throughout the offense, obviously, other than offensive line. He could play a lot of different places. It’ll be week-to-week based on the game plan. We’re pretty early this week, so I’d say I don’t have any idea what that’ll be this week. It’ll be week-to-week.”
Cunningham’s expected role last Sunday came with high expectations as New England’s offense was in desperate need of a playmaker. But his debut largely fell flat, however, as he played just six offensive snaps — three coming at quarterback.
During his two designed running plays, the game often appeared to be moving too fast — which should not be a major surprise for a UDFA making his NFL debut. Cunningham appeared to leave yards on the table by making incorrect reads during his two designed runs.
New England dialed up a zone-read action during his first snap at quarterback, where Cunningham is likely left to read the edge defender to his left. Raiders’ rookie Tyree Wilson crashing inside to the running back usually signals for the QB to keep the ball and bounce it outside (where he appears to have room to run). But, Cunningham hands it off for a minimal gain.
Cunningham runs a similar action later in the third quarter. Although this time he keeps it himself despite Vegas sending a blitz — which results in a 5-yard sack. A handoff to Ezekiel Elliott away from the extra defenders likely nets New England a positive gain.
“You put together a package of plays; you try not to overload him,” O’Brien said of Cunningham’s usage. “They’re plays within our system. They’re not brand new plays. They’re plays within our system. We try to do a good job. He’s a very bright guy. He does a good job. He knows the plays, and he’s gotten better every week.”
Despite playing just six plays, Cunningham served as the team’s primary backup quarterback as Bailey Zappe was declared the emergency QB. That meant if Mac Jones was injured or removed from the game, Cunningham would've been in a tough spot as the only remaining option.
“For that week, for that game, that’s what we decided to do in that game,” O’Brien explained. “I think it’s week-to-week. I think what maybe you’re asking is, have we lost confidence in Bailey? We haven’t lost any confidence in Bailey.
“We felt like that was the best way to go about it for the Raider game based on where we were from an injury standpoint and things like that. ‘How do we get Malik Cunningham into the game?’ And that was the best way to get him into the game.”
It was the correct choice from the coaching staff to search for a spark offensively from the dynamic dual-threat, but they did play a risky game leaving him as the lone man standing behind Jones.
The main question now is whether or not the team will keep Cunningham in that same role moving forward. With three other quarterbacks on the roster, O’Brien explained that practice reps can be “limited.” But, continuing to explore Cunningham’s athletic skillset and upside is likely worth it no matter what the weekly game plan calls for.
“We have a lot of reps here. We have post-practice things. We have ways to get three, four quarterbacks reps,” O’Brien said. “We do that on a weekly basis. We’ll do that today, tomorrow and for the rest of the time that we’re here. These guys get a lot of reps. I don’t think that’s as big an issue as much as just, ‘How are we going to use these guys in a game plan, whatever that game plan might be?’”